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Forgiving Your Spouse May Make Your Relationships Worse, Study Warns

It might make you feel better in the short-term, but it won't change much in the long-term.

Forgiving romantic partners for their mistakes might result in worse relationships in the long term, new research warns. While expressing anger, disappointment, and giving ultimatums can be uncomfortable, holding people accountable for their past transgressions appears to be crucial for resolving issues in the long-term. The findings not only add to a long list of reasons to not be a doormat, but confirm that, when adults screw up, they need to be told never to do that again.

“I wondered if calling one’s partner out for his or her bad behavior and making it clear that the behavior is unacceptable—in addition to forgiving them—might help couples maximize the benefits of forgiveness and avoid potential costs,” study coauthor Michelle Russell, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, told Fatherly. “For some people, being forgiven may prevent them from realizing how serious their offending behavior was or even make them think that it’s OK.“

Forgiveness can make people feel better about their partners, themselves, and their relationships, research shows. However, depending on the degree of the transgression, forgiveness can have harmful consequences and cause partners to continue harmful behaviors over time, studies confirm. In extreme instances, the most forgiving individuals in a relationship experience more psychological and physical aggression, compared to less-forgiving individuals, data indicates.

To better understand this, Russel and colleagues conducted two separate experiments. The first study surveyed 85 unmarried young adults about conflicts in their relationships, including how their partner responded to rebuke, how often they were blamed for these problems or pressured to change, and how forgiving their partners were. The second study interviewed 135 newlyweds about areas of disagreement in their marriage, as well as how agreeable, considerate, and forgiving their spouses were. Researchers followed up with surveys via mail every six to eight months over the next five years.

Together, the results revealed that when partners forgave more and demanded less over time, their partners’ transgressions continued or became worse over time. “Even though it can be difficult or uncomfortable in the short-term, expressing anger toward a partner and indicating that the hurtful behavior has to stop may be a vital component of the process of forgiveness,” Russell says.

It’s important to note that every relationship is different and that this study did not specifically delve into the frequency or severity of certain transgression. Russell suspects that simple forgiveness may not be as problematic, in more minor disputes. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating conflict in relationships,” Russell adds. “However, more and more research is demonstrating the importance of calibrating our responses according to the severity of the problem we’re facing,”

“Or, rather, picking your battles.”